Why 47 Ronin is Kinda Awesome

“A beautiful film that stays perhaps a little too true to mythological tropes”

47 Ronin is an unusual film. On the one hand, it's a veritable feast for the eyes; on the other, it's a fairly pedestrian story. For me, it's one of those films that borders on greatness, and I couldn't help but feel that it could have achieved that if only it had tweaked a few things here and there. Still, it was enjoyable, and there are a number of aspects to the film that are definitely laudable. I also realise that this is the type of film that will be very divisive, so I'm putting my flame-proof outfit on before getting into this.

The story of 47 Ronin is one based on an age old Japanese tale, following the fate of, funnily enough, 47 Ronin that set out on a quest to avenge the murder of their lord despite knowing that regardless of its success of not, they would die. It is a tale of honour, justice and devotion, as well as the ultimate sacrifice. In this version, a “forbidden love” sub plot has been introduced, with Keanu Reeves' character Kai an outcast “half-breed” who loves and is loved by the Lords daughter, Mika. This retelling also embellishes the story with Japanese mythological themes that give it a more fantastical feel – one of the things that I felt worked extremely well.

“This is his excited face. Just wait till you see his sad face.”

The acting in the film is somewhat hit and miss. Reeves is known for his deadpan acting, and in some elements of this story, it works really well – the subdued, resigned outcast that still fights for those that shunned him is spot on, but it doesn't quite hit the mark during the love story sub plot. I think the character also suffers because, whilst it is apparent that he is intended to be the protagonist, it often feels like he's secondary to the story at hand. The character of Oishi, leader of the Ronin, regularly takes centre place, and it's almost like they are vying for the position of protagonist.

Hiroyuki Sanada, playing Oishi, is fantastic. Indeed, he's quite possibly my favourite Japanese actor of all time. For those unfamiliar with the name, you might recognise him from “Sunshine”, as Captain Kaneda, “The Last Samurai” as Ken Watanabe's second-in-command, Ujio, “The Wolverine” as Shingen, and “Rush Hour 3” as Jackie Chan's brother, Kenji. In this film, he expertly plays the role of the Samurai outcast for his failure to protect his Lord, and the man who rallies his fellow Ronin – including Kai – to seek vengeance. Oishi's troubles and conflicts lie just below the surface of a stoic samurai, and he is, truly, inspirational.

“Sanada leads the heroic Ronin”

There are other notable performances, particularly Rinko Kikuchi (you might recognise her as Mako in Pacific Rim) as the Witch, a creepy, sadistic and downright evil character that functions as one half of the antagonistic couple for the film. Her mannerisms and speech are perfect for the character, and she really gives off a sinister vibe. Tadanobu Asano (most recognisable as Hogun of the Warriors Three from Thor 1&2) plays Lord Kira, the other primary antagonist in the film. He is a young and ambitious lord amongst the samurai clans, and is the rival of Lord Asano. Kira has the Witch "assassinate" Asano, thus beginning the primary quest of the film. Whilst not as memorable as Kikuchi or Sanada, he nevertheless pulls of the arrogant, twisted, dishonourable samurai lord very well.

Special mention goes to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, the only reason Sanada is listed as “quite possibly my favourite Japanese actor”. Best known for his role as Shang Tsung in cult hit “Mortal Kombat”, as well as a slew of TV roles in the likes of Stargate SG-1, Hawaii Five-O, Heroes and recent webseries Mortal Kombat: Legacy, here he plays Shogun Tsunayoshi, and pulls off the role effortlessly.

“Special guest star: Yoshimitsu”

Moving 'swiftly' on, one of the things that I feel must be talked about are the visuals of the film. They are, in a word, breathtaking. As I mentioned earlier, this film aims to add a mythological element to the story, and this is readily apparent in the visual styles. From the colour palettes and saturation, to the set design and CGI, everything has that fantastical feel. I must stress, however, that it does not overdo it. In fact, I honestly think this is one of the most successful blends of mythology and realism in cinema history. They really hit the sweet spot, never leaning too far either side, and, crucially, making the fantastical elements seem very natural within this historic period of our own world. It is truly beautiful to watch.

As an extension of this, the choreography is also top notch. The majority of the actors are all trained anyway, and it really shows in the fights. I was initially worried that Reeves more westernised training would stand out in a very Japanese style film, and whilst I was correct in a way, it actually worked really well; the character is meant to be a halfbreed, trained by “demons”, and as such his unique style smoothly fits. The rest of the actors are great as well, particularly Sanada, whom I truly do love to watch fight.

“Dragons: They make everything automatically cooler”

Sadly, despite all the praise I've lavished above, the story is very pedestrian. I say this not to disdain  it, as it sticks very closely to the mythological and historical tropes, and in a way, that needs to be praised. That being said, mythological tropes are, by definition, cliché and predictable, and when that is combined with a strange, slow pacing (seemingly to truly appreciate the beauty of the world they have created), I was left feeling just a little bit unsatisfied – enough to warrant this only achieving borderline awesomeness in my rating.

Final score: 7/10

This has been Blacksmith, for The Awesome Update.

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